'A mental game' — How the Fort Hays State shooting team overcame the pandemic to take a 7th national title

Rafael Garcia
Hays Daily News
In alphabetical order, members of the national title-winning Fort Hays State shotgun sports team: Brock Barton, Zach Beers, Nick Borchardt, Katie Dettmann, Will Dulohery, Gus Dunbar, Heather Gordon, Hank McVeigh, Katie Petersen, Wyatt Pursell, Riley Ross, Lane Sorensen, Ryan St. Peters, Logan Smith, Cordell Waggoner, Cole Ziegelmeier,  Hailey Zulkoski.

The freezing rain drenched the shooting teams from around the country gathered at the tiny town of Marengo, Ohio, in mid-March for the Scholastic Clay Target Program's national competition.

Normally held in the fall, COVID-19 protocols postponed the once-a-year competition to mid-March, where the early spring showers drenched the teams, and late winter chills kept conditions miserable as well. Fort Hays State University shooting team member Katie Petersen slipped plastic sacks over her feet to keep them at least dry, if not warm.

Yet there was no place Peterson, a graduate student from Fremont, Nebraska, and her teammates on the Fort Hays team would have rather been.

"I was pumped," said Hank McVeigh, a member of the team from Lincoln, Nebraska. "It was an opportunity to compete for two rings in the span of two days."

And despite the awful conditions, the team ended up taking home its seventh national title since 2013, putting up a score better than even any NCAA Division I team. A week later, the team would travel to San Antonio to place third at the other national competition, the Association of College Unions International Clay Target Championships in San Antonio.

Cordell Waggoner, a senior from Tribune, Kansas, finished as the high overall winner in the men's division at the SCTP meet, making 573 out of 600 shots.

"It’s hard to believe how lucky I was, to be able to be a part of a team with some really great shooters," said Waggoner, who is set to graduate in May with a degree in tourism and hospitality management. "Fort Hays State has built such a great program, and it is known all over the country for its great shotgun team."

The national title and third-place finish were the culmination of a difficult year, not unlike any other sport, for the team. Normally splitting competitions between monthlong sessions in the fall and spring semesters, the Fort Hays State team had not been to a competition in over a year since the pandemic first began.

"We knew it would be a tough year in the fall," said Duane Shepherd, an associate professor of physical education and human performance. Shepherd became the team's first faculty adviser in fall 2005 and has coached it ever since. "We knew we probably would not be able to travel, but we'd at least be able to practice."

So the team did, finding practice sessions to be a decent enough respite from the stresses of the pandemic, as well as a community in a semester when everything else felt so isolated.

'A mental game'

"We just needed to practice as if we were going to compete, and be ready to perform whenever we got that opportunity," Shepherd said.

Petersen and McVeigh, both upperclassmen on the team, said they knew they played a more significant role as leaders to the underclassmen, so they took the fall competition suspension in stride. Petersen said the suspension was even a blessing in disguise, with the team afforded more time to practice on specific skills or disciplines in the absence of competitions.

"I just let myself have fun, and I started shooting a lot better," she said. She finished as the second high overall winner at the SCTP meet, as well as first in women's trap and second in women's skeet at the ACUI meet. "I just let (the competitiveness) go, and I didn't less myself overthink it or stress out."

McVeigh compared shotgun sports to golf, in that much of the preparation and techniques lie in the participants' mentalities.

"You practice your mechanics, and after a couple of years, your mechanics are pretty solidified," he said. "It's going out and doing the exact same routine as you shoot those targets."

"It's really a game that you have to be mentally tough."

'We're not rebuilding. We're reloading.'

Before 2005, Fort Hays State didn't even have a shooting team.

But when a few incoming freshman asked Shepherd if he would consider helping them get a team off the ground, he agreed and became the team's coach as well, with the team's first event being a national tournament.

It wouldn't be long until the team managed to win a national title for itself in 2013, under Shepherd's supervision, and in the eight years since, the team has managed to take seven national titles between the two yearly competitions.

He credited the team's success in recent years to an environment of discipline and perseverance, always looking to improve even in disciplines with which a team member might be unfamiliar. While team members compete individually, Shepherd said he makes sure all of the team knows it works together.

"We shoot first and foremost as a team, and the individual things will take care of themselves," the coach said. "That’s one of our major goals, for everyone to be into that philosophy. We win as a team, and we lose as a team, but we stay together through it."

When McVeigh first joined his freshman year, a "stacked" class of core team members had just graduated. But the team knew it could continue the culture of success those graduates were leaving behind.

"My favorite thing that Shepherd told us my freshman year was, 'We're not rebuilding. We're reloading,'" McVeigh recounted.

The team does not have any scholarships to give to prospective shooters, so rather than focusing on recruiting great talent, Shepherd said the team has to take an approach of building it up internally.

That especially works on a team in which the members constantly push each other to be better, McVeigh said. It's something he believes will stick with each team member even after they graduate.

"The drive that I saw and had to kind of adopt is something I'll always appreciate in getting from this team," the junior said. "You have to continue that success, and with the work ethic this team shows, it's hard to get away from that. It sticks with you.

"When you're competing against and alongside other good people, you get better yourself," said Petersen. "We do a great job of lifting each other up."